Low-impact living – doing some of it yourself
It’s no secret that the earth’s resources are limited and that each of us must begin the process of reevaluating our lifestyles, or that lifestyle – its very existence – may be destroyed before our eyes. The most celebrated limited resource is, of course, fossil fuels, which provide the fuels for our creature comforts, our conveniences and our expressions of domination of the planet. The very use of those fossil fuels is also responsible for the potential destruction of the planet’s environment, which makes the need to reduce their use urgent. If we want to survive on planet earth, we must all begin to live with less impact on the planet.
But what does that mean? How does a world accustomed to unlimited access to convenience face the possibility of reducing that access? How does a world used to expressing excess regain balance? The answer is that it must remind itself that the natural world offers everything needed for both survival and for enjoying the benefits of the planet. While electrical energy is needed to drive the conveniences of the 21st century, access to electrical energy is not limited to the burning of fossil fuels, nor is the ubiquitous automobile necessarily powered by fossil fuels. There are many sources of power that are both natural and renewable.
The sun floods the earth with unlimited energy, enough to power every electrical device on the planet. But to capture that energy, there must be a commitment at a global level to find the technology and make it accessible to the whole planet. At the national level, governments must develop policies that both conserve energy and provide citizens with the opportunities and incentives to use that free resource to reduce the need for an overgrown grid. And at the personal level, there must be a commitment to living in a way that requires less energy. In the words of one of my previous employers, they must strive for “long life, loose fit, low energy”.
It is at the level of the individual that there has been the greatest failure, however, as the difficulty of unplugging from the convenience of the toggle switch has proven unbeatable. For example, the solar water heater has been around for centuries (the first American patent was in the 19th century), yet only a tiny percentage of Bahamians have even considered one as an alternative to their electrical heaters. Most know that a third of their energy bill goes toward heating water, yet it is still easier to think of a solar water heater as somehow “experimental”. And while windmills have been around forever, when applied to producing electricity, there is a tendency to think of them as “new” technology. The fact is that examples of low-impact living have been portrayed as “strange” in both literature and the news. Consider the popular views of the religious communities that live close to the land, or the hermit who needs no grid at all. While these may be extreme examples, they demonstrate that it is possible to live a low-impact lifestyle and be both healthy and satisfied.
For the average middle-class Bahamian, therefore, there is little reason to put off the elimination of the excess that characterizes Western life. The design of their houses must regain its relationship with its climate and its location; it must make use of natural processes to warm, cool and ventilate itself, and it must make use of the technologies that use “free” natural processes. Their modes of transport must be driven by fuels that are not subject to depletion and that do not fill the environment with pollutants.
Perhaps the best way to get into the low-impact mindset is to combine the reduction of the need for electricity with the use of the sun and the wind. Building and installing a solar water heater first removes the consumer of the largest part of most families’ electricity usage, then introduces the homeowner to the details of the sun’s path, its angle of elevation and the level of radiation available at their location. It also helps the homeowner get in touch with his or her family’s patterns concerning the use of hot water. And that process is made easier today by the availability of numerous how-to books online. We find “Solar Water Heater DIY” by Tom Hayden an excellent guide with which to begin. But whether you build it by yourself or as a family project, building a solar water heater is the perfect way to begin a commitment to low-impact living. It might also be the most fun you can have with a home project.
Similarly, the use of breezes to cool spaces has been a time-honored Bahamian tradition, shaping the character of Bahamian architecture. Both clients and architects are responsible for including these approaches in the discussion of their buildings; one as a part of the brief, the other as the proposed design. In either case, the commitment to low-impact living must become a national commitment if The Bahamas is to survive the rising cost of energy in this first quarter of the 21st century.
- Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com and like its Facebook page. The firm’s mission is to help its clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.